U.S. announces plan to protect greater sage-grouse

Mead Gruver
The Associated Press
In this 2008 file photo, male sage grouses fight for the attention of female southwest of Rawlins, Wyoming.
AP | Rawlins Daily Times

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell revealed plans Thursday to preserve habitat in 10 Western states, including Colorado, for the greater sage-grouse. It is the federal government’s biggest land-planning effort to date for conservation of a single species.

The proposal would affect energy development. The regulations would require oil and gas wells to be clustered in groups of a half-dozen or more to avoid scattering them across habitat of the greater sage-grouse. Drilling near breeding areas would be prohibited during mating season, and power lines would be moved away from prime habitat to avoid serving as perches for raptors that eat sage-grouse.

Some will say the plans don’t go far enough to protect the bird, Jewell said.

“But I would say these plans are grounded in sound science — the best available science,” she said at a news conference on a ranch near Cheyenne.

Sage-grouse are chicken-sized birds that inhabit grass and sagebrush ecosystems in 11 states from California to the Dakotas, including part of Garfield County north-northwest of Parachute. The birds’ numbers have declined in recent decades, and some conservationists see a risk of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a court-ordered deadline of Sept. 30 to decide whether the greater sage-grouse needs protection as a threatened or endangered species. Many Western lawmakers and representatives of the oil-and-gas and agriculture industries say a threatened or endangered listing would devastate the region’s economy.

The new measures would apply to federal lands only. U.S. officials expect to adopt them by late summer.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, in a statement, said, “We’re cautiously optimistic about the approach taken by the BLM and USFS in the land use plans announced today. Of course, these are significant documents and we need time to carefully read and review them to see how various concerns from cooperating agencies have been addressed. We’ve had a strong partnership with the Interior Department, and while we still have some difficulties with the BLM’s approach, we remain committed to keep working through those issues.

“We continue to believe state-led efforts are the best approach to protecting the greater sage-grouse. The federal agencies rely heavily on regulatory mandates, but Colorado has found that incentive-based approaches in combination with regulation are the most effective. We’ve worked closely with many partners across the spectrum, including local governments, industry, landowners and conservationists. A federal approach that is too rigid, including a listing of the bird, puts that cooperation at risk. We’ll continue to work with all parties to strike the right balance needed to protect this important species as well as Colorado livelihoods.”

Garfield County officials are concerned that the rules will block development of large natural gas reserves in the region.

Congress voted late last year to withhold funding to implement any listing until September 2016. Other measures pending before U.S. lawmakers aim to postpone any federal listing for five years or more as states develop their own plans for conserving habitat.

Republicans in Congress criticized the plans as federal overreach.

“This is just flat out wrong,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “The state plans work. This proposal is only about controlling land, not saving the bird.”

But Wyoming shows that sage-grouse and energy development can co-exist, Jewell said. It is a top oil, natural gas and coal producer with a sage-grouse conservation strategy being copied by other states and the federal government.

“There is no future for our economy if we don’t take care of the sage-grouse,” said Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican who took part in the announcement. “That’s a fact. Some like it, some don’t.”

Several environmental groups welcomed the plans.

“The sage-grouse’s listing under the Endangered Species Act is an outcome from which no one stands to gain, least of all public lands sportsmen,” said Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

In what some environmentalists view as an accommodation to industry, the rules would not seek to block development across sage-grouse habitat. The government still intends to honor valid and existing rights to develop resources on that land, the Interior Department said.

Even so, the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based petroleum industry advocacy group, pledged to support the federal legislation to postpone any sage-grouse listing.

“The economic impact of sage-grouse restrictions on just the oil and natural gas industry will be between 9,170 and 18,250 jobs and $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion of annual economic impact across Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the alliance’s vice president of government and public affairs.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management expects to adopt the new measures by late summer. They would apply to federal lands in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The rules would not apply to a relatively small area of habitat in Washington state.

Federally identified habitat for the greater sage-grouse across the Western U.S. totals an area about the size of Colorado. The Interior Department has classified about two-thirds of that range as priority habitat, including areas that could have restrictions on development.

Restrictions would vary between states. Wyoming, with as many as 500,000 greater sage-grouse, is home to more of the birds than any other state by far.

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